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March 09, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Farms in Palo Alto? Farms in Palo Alto? (March 09, 2005)

Residents still receive government subsidies, even though farm land is scattered throughout the country

by Bill D'Agostino

Although Palo Alto's last working agricultural property -- an orchard next to Alta Mesa Cemetery, near Gunn High School -- closed three decades ago, some locals still find ways to receive federal farm aid.

From 1995 to 2003, 125 Palo Alto residents and companies received $1.8 million in subsidies. All, of course, related to properties in other parts of the country.

Such subsidies are hot political potatoes these days. Last month, President George W. Bush proposed capping subsidies to help balance the ballooning federal budget. Last week, the World Trade Organization also ruled that America's cotton subsidies violate international trade laws.

Since a Palo Altan has not received more than $50,000 a year in federal farm payments, none would be affected by Bush's proposal, which would cap annual subsidies at $250,000 per individual. But many with agricultural connections have strong feelings on the issue.

Ironically, one of Palo Alto's largest local receivers of subsidies, John Monroe, said he's opposed to all agriculture subsidies. He supports the Bush proposal, but argued it doesn't go nearly far enough.

"One of our challenges is to get freer trade around the world and subsidies really do distort market forces," said Monroe, a retired Hewlett Packard executive who has an almond farm in Northern California.

Almond farms are, according to local lingo, called "a-mond" farms, Monroe said. "Because when you harvest them you knock the 'L' out of them."

The family's 200-acre investment, known as Done-Again Farms, is located in Arbuckle, approximately 50 miles north of Sacramento.

From 1998 to 2001, Monroe received $48,000 in subsidies, mostly conservation subsidies for environmental protection. For instance, he's made a lot of improvements to provide natural habitat and prevent soil erosion.

"I spent more money on rocks than you could believe," Monroe said.

Palo Altan James Opfer expressed support for subsidies that bring stability to the average farmer, like those that help his nephew's farm in Illinois survive, in years where crops suffer. But Opfer, an industry analyst, noted that most go to large businesses. Since he predicted they would find a way to bypass the proposed cap, Opfer was neutral to the president's proposal.

"It looks good on paper and it makes everyone feel happier, but there might be ways to avoid some or all of the impact," he said.

As the owner of 267 of his nephew's 1,000 acres, Opfer received $22,835 from 1995 to 2003, mostly for corn, soybean and wheat commodity subsidies.

The farm serves three purposes for Opfer's family: as an income source, a way to stay connected to family in Illinois and a spot for vacations. "It's kind of a fantasy place," he said.

The second home, decorated with antiques, is especially useful for his wife, who suffers from allergies and leaves California in the winter.

In a reflection of the national trend, most Palo Alto farm subsidies went to the few largest recipients. Nearly 70 percent of the city's total subsidies went to the top 20 recipients, although no one made more than $50,000 in a single year.

Nationwide, the top 10 percent of recipients -- mostly large agribusinesses -- received approximately 70 percent of payments, according to the Environmental Working Group, which maintains the database used as the reference for this story.

Nationwide, subsidies cost Americans $16.4 billion in 2003. The largest recipient, Riceland Foods Inc., received nearly $69 million in 2003.

Closer to home, Palo Alto's three largest receivers of farm subsidies, from 1995 to 2003, were:

* Barbara Riper, who received $152,569 during that time frame, mostly from wheat commodity subsidies from two farms in Oregon;

* Lavenson Properties, who received $149,783, mostly from corn and wheat subsidies from a farm in Sacramento county; and

* Scott Wiegel, who received $114,779, mostly from corn and soybean subsidies from two farms in Illinois.

Many of the largest recipients refused to be interviewed for this story, or were unavailable for comment.

The second-smallest receiver of subsidies in Palo Alto was Vernon King Gates. He owns a one-eighth interest in a farm in Kansas, which is run by his Texas-based cousin. In 1995, he received $38 for a sorghum commodity subsidy.

The 267 acres of land is in the middle of nowhere, Gates said, and has been in his family since the Civil War. Despite unsubstantiated family rumors that oil is somewhere underneath -- ready to be mined for riches -- he said the property was basically worthless.

"I don't know why my ancestors got into it at all," he said.

In fact, last year, due to the way his taxes worked out, Gates said he actually lost more than $2,000. Gates, who started the restaurant St. Michael's Alley in downtown Palo Alto, said he had no opinion about farm subsidies or the president's proposal.

"They oughta give the Plain states back to the buffalo," Gates said.

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at

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